Before Jim Robison passed the torch to his son, Stephen, he wanted to be sure the flame still glowed.
The Robisons own one of Saline’s oldest businesses – Robison-Bahnmiller Funeral Home. It
has been in continuous operation for more than 80 years. Robison bought the business from Gerry Bahnmiller in 1984. Before he passed the business to his son, he made sure it was built for business in the 21st Century.
“You have to stay current. You can't presume that everyone will keep coming back because you served their grandparents,” Stephen said. “You have to have modern facilities.”
One of the advantages is that the new barrier-free entrance on Davenport Street is across from the recently installed parking lot. There’s also a modern wheelchair lift.
The office is more spacious, which allows the Robisons to meet with large families when discussing arrangements. The expanded chapel and gathering spaces give the funeral directors more room to take care of families, said Alison Robison, the matriarch of the family business.
“The funeral directors can all be taking care of different things without stepping on each other’s toes. It was nearly impossible before,” Alison said.
In the older, cramped version of the building, if a person with mobility issues wanted to see caskets, they took a 1954 chain lift to the second floor. The company computer was also on the second floor, so the directors spent a lot of time running up and down the stairs.
Today, all the public area is on the main floor.
Another new feature is the patio behind the funeral home.
“Some families have lunch out there or just sit out there and enjoy the sun,” Jim said.
The Robisons have made their living serving local families. When they renovated their funeral home, they used local contractors.
“We stayed with everyone local. We used Chelsea Lumber for the windows and cabinetry. We used Hagen Plumbing. The electricians, the drywall, the painting. All local. We’re proud of that,” Jim said. “We might have been able to save $50,000 or $60,000 by going to cheapest. But I don’t know those businesses. I know the local businesses and trust their work.”
Even the caskets are American-made – a rarity in the funeral business.
“We wanted to stay with America. I get tired of the Wal-Marts and K-Marts where you’re lucky if you find anything made in this country,” Jim said.
In all, the renovation was worth an estimated $600,000.
The Robisons said they were grateful for the work of the contractors. They also appreciated the help of the City of Saline.
“As a whole, the City of Saline helped us out. Taylor Tillman, the building inspector, was so helpful. He’d come over and tell us what needed to be done without making us fill out 15 pages of forms,” Jim said.
While he was thanking the city, Jim also made time to thank the Saline Police Department, which has for years provided escorts for funeral processions.
Saline’s funeral home was founded in 1936-37 when Francis and Alice Lockwood bought the house Davenport and Michigan and started the business. Gerry and Mildred Bahnmiller took over ownership on July 1, 1961.
An Historic Business
Since the 1970s, Jim Robison had been working at Muehlig Funeral Home in Ann Arbor. He began moonlighting with Bahnmiller, also a former Muehlig employee. After 23 years as funeral directors the Bahnmillers decided to retire. They sold their business to Jim Robison. He and his wife Alison assumed responsibilities on Jan. 1, 1984.
“We sold our house. We sold all of our assets to move here. Stephen was four and Emily was a newborn,” Alison said. “We knew the Bahnmillers. But the rest of it was a leap of faith.”
They kept the Bahnmiller name as a show of respect for a family admired in community. The Robisons lived in the apartment above the funeral home with their young children.
Alison left her teaching job in Wayne-Westland to take care of the kids and help with the business and eventually began working in Saline schools.
Their first call as funeral home owners came from the family of Carroll Nadig. It wasn't what they expected.
“It was in the middle of the night. Their Saint Bernard died and they didn’t know what else to do and they didn’t want to dig a big hole in their backyard,” Jim said. “So I go out there at 3 a.m. and Carroll and I pick up this 300-pound dog and we drove to an all-night veteranarian who took care of the dog.”
The funeral home was a small operation. Jim was helped by Rollie Goltz and Norm Scherdt, grandfather of today’s Mayor Brian Marl.
In their first 18 months itt was baptism by fire for a family in a new community with a new business.
“In 18 months, we had 11 high school students die,” Alison remembered. "We were so busy we could barely catch our breath."
The Apartment Upstairs
When the Robisons moved to Saline, they lived in a spacious apartment over the funeral home. Today, Stephen lives in the apartment with his wife and their son.
Growing up in a funeral home can be an odd experience.
“Today I understand why there are three levels of carpet and three levels of padding,” Stephen says.
His son, nearly four, is at an age where being quiet isn’t easy, so when there are funerals taking place, his son spends a lot of time at the park or playing soccer.
Alison remembers her curious son sneaking around the funeral home.
“Stephen started appearing behind the curtains behind the casket bier looking for his father because I wasn’t doing what he wanted me to do,” said Alison, explaining why she and Jim chose to find a house after five years of living above the funeral home.
Stephen said living upstairs has its positives and negatives.
“It’s mostly positive. I don’t have any commutes. I’m always available. But I also don’t have that 15-minute drive home to decompress and listen to music. Five seconds after work I’m upstairs doing dishes,” he said. “But if a family comes into the home and needs help right away, I can throw on a shirt and tie and come downstairs to meet with them.”
He also says it can be hard to ever feel like you’re getting away from work. But Jim said today’s funeral home operators have it easy, thanks to cell phones and call forwarding.
“Gerry Bahnmiller had one white plastic phone on his desk and that was it. He couldn’t get away from the funeral home, ever,” Jim recalls.
The Family Business
Emily is a nurse in a cardiac clinic in Grand Rapids. She never had interest in joining the business. Stephen originally didn’t plan on a career in the family business.
After graduating from Saline High School, where he played baseball and football and other sports, he went to college to study sound engineering. He wanted to work recording bands in a studio. But the who-you-know industry proved tough to break through. He paid his dues as an unpaid intern while operating a mobile DJ business.
The DJ business proved to be surprisingly similar to the funeral business.
“You meet with the families and coordinate how the day will go. You think of all the things that they won’t,” Stephen said.
At the time, Jim talked to Stephen about potentially retiring from the business. So after graduating from Hope College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications and political science, Stephen returned to his hometown and began helping his father while earning his mortuary science degree at Wayne State University.
“I lived in Chicago. I lived in Holland. I lived in Philadelphia. But I always loved Saline and I wanted to come back and live with my family,” Stephen said. “I figured that I know the area and I like the people. So I joined the business.”
The Robisons were happy Stephen joined the family business.
“We wanted to keep this as a family business – not like so many of the other funeral homes in Michigan,” Jim said.
He rejected an offer to sell the funeral home to Service Corporation International – which has gobbled up many funeral homes across the country. Jim didn’t trust the offers from SCI, which included company stock of questionable value. The Robisons also wanted to live up to a request from the Bahnmillers, who didn’t want to see their family business go corporate.
“This was their legacy. This was the all-consuming thing in their life,” Alison said.
“Just like it is for us,” Jim added.
“They wanted to be assured that we would run it the same way they had,” Alison said.
It was the same for the Robisons.
“When you give up that work and that labor, or that passion, you have to be willing to step back and let it go. And we had a hard time letting go of that. We wanted it to stay in the family,” Alison said.
The Robisons remember sage advice from the Bahnmillers.
“Gerry said to us, ‘Don’t make the mistake of saying anything about anybody.’ Because they are all related,” Alison recalls.
Jim remembers that lesson and two others from Bahnmiller about living in a small town in a rural setting.
“The second thing was, 'Never put an election sign in your front yard announcing who you’re going to vote for,'” Jim says. “And the third thing he said was, ‘if someone comes to your front door wearing bib overalls, they can buy and sell you 14 times over.’”
The first two guys who came to Jim’s door were the Braun brothers.
Serving Families in Tough Times
Working with families in times of turmoil and crisis is not for the timid – especially when you know so many of the families walking through your doors.
“When something happens, you do what you have to do in order to survive. You place yourself in their position and you forget about how you feel, because they’re here and they need you to provide a professional service,” Jim said.
“When you’re dealing with someone whose emotional fragile, you have to be empathetic, because sympathy will undo the whole room very quickly,” Alison said
There’s more to the job than meets the eye. After taking a call after a death, someone from the funeral home picks up the deceased and then brings it back to the funeral home for embalming or cremation.
“If people followed us around and saw what it takes to put on a service, I think they’d be surprised,” Jim said.
“If you’ve come in for a viewing or a service, you’ve been greeted by a professional at the door, you’ve experienced the comfortable settings and seen the wonderful flowers. But one point I calculated that for every one hour of activity with family members, there were eight to 10 hours of paper work,” Alison said.
That includes working with the county, arranging for funeral escorts and dealing with cemeteries and ministers.
Because of his DJ background, Stephen was comfortable with the idea of event planning. That’s just one element of the job. To be a licensed funeral director one must graduate from a three-year course in mortuary science offered by an accredited college or university. They’re also required to do a one-year apprenticeship. Then they must pass a national and state board exam.
Alison said that Robison-Bahnmiller's funeral directors provide families with warmth and professionalism.
“I think people, particularly older people, have this image of what a funeral director looks like and sounds like; that they’ll be lugubrious, that they will have a pallor to their complexion and that everything will be very severe and quiet,” Alison said. “When you meet these three, it dispels that. They have warmth and appropriate humor. They listen to what family members want. There’s a different sense that people will feel from the moment they enter the front door.”
When Jim and Alison were married, Alison worked as a school teacher. One day at Muehlig Funeral Home, she visited him at work, curious to see what his job was all about.
“I knew what a funeral chapel looked like, but I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t know about the detailed care he gave the deceased. I realized it was something different and something special,” Alison said.
Providing funeral arrangements for people you know in a small town can be taxing, but it’s rewarding, Alison said.
“Even when the funeral is done, you’re not done with the family, not in your mind,” Alison said. “One of the reasons folks appreciate this funeral home is that the sense that everything is a little more personal.”
Jim has a gift for gab and remarkable recall that becomes apparent in any conversation.
According to Alison, he also possesses “steel trap mind” for names, dates, family relationships and where calls were taken.
“You don’t get in a business that’s run by people who are not local, by corporations,” Alison said.
“They don’t know the Feldkamps from the Girbachs from Bo Schembechler,” Jim said.
There are two things the Robisons haven’t been able to count on over the years:
“I can’t tell you how many times our kids were waiting at the house on Christmas morning for Santa Claus, and that phone would ring. Sometimes it would be five days later before we could celebrate Christmas,” Jim said.
To this day, Jim and Alison still often wait until the new year begins to celebrate Christmas.
“There’s too much going on,” Alison said. “In our first 10 years of being here, we had three uninterrupted Christmas days.”
As it turns out, people seem much more likely to die near Christmas. Stephen has charted the calls to help the family gain a better understanding of the phenomenan.
“There is an ebb and flow to life,” Alison said. “I think some people will themselves to get to an anniversary, or to get to a holiday, or to see a wedding, or to see a grandchild one more time. And then it’s time to go home.”
Jim said that Christmas, in particular, can be a tough time for seniors.
“When you get people like my mother, at 87, and dad’s been deceased for seven years, Christmas can bring serious depression,” he said.
But it’s not just Christmas. Death, like life, doesn’t arrive on a timely schedule.
“I was on the phone last night giving my son a bath while talking to a woman who needed a monument on time for Memorial Day,” Stephen said.
David vs. Goliath
It was one thing to reject a corporate offer to buy the funeral home. You’ve still got to compete with them.
Robison-Bahnmiller competes with the big companies on prices and service.
“We work with families. They tell us their budget and we try to give them the best experience we can,” Stephen said.
The funeral directors try to support families choices during the process, accommodating each family so they receive the remembrance the way they want it, at the price point they expect.
Robison-Bahnmiler Funeral Home arranges 100-110 funerals a year. The funeral home also offers pre-arrangements people who wish to plan in advance. They have 174 pre-arranged funerals on file.
“It makes it easier for families when the day comes and everything is set up,” Jim said.
“They’re coming in during a stressful situation, generally. And if you’ve made those decisions in advance, it’s so much easier,” Alison said. “If I had to recommend one thing for people to do, it would be a pre-arranged funeral.”
People begin planning as young as 50 years old.